Weekly Reads

April 9–15, Part II

Politics & Society

TL; DR — Impious governor disappoints pious constituents.

Until recently, I assumed that candidates — particularly those seeking the votes of deeply religious voting blocs (e.g., evangelicals) — would need to publicly signal their moral uprightness. I reasoned that, if a candidate could not (or did not) effectively signal a strong moral framework, then how could voters trust his or her fealty to values-based policies? Wouldn’t actual, or even the potential for, incongruity between private behavior and public action concern voters?

According to one of Governor Bentley’s constituents, such is not the case:

“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians.“Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”

Recent history suggests as much — look no further than Donald Trump, a man who won the votes of millions of evangelicals in spite of past behaviors that must certainly appall these voters. And unlike Governor Bentley’s constituents, Trump voters cannot claim that they were misled. As a result, the Trump case study is more informative; it suggests that, for many voters, the policy ends justify the policy means — that is, voting for whichever candidate has articulated positions aligned with one’s worldview.

While one might be inclined to applaud these voters for narrowly focusing on issues rather than personalities, such a high-minded approach — taken to its logical extreme — leaves our democracy exposed to the whims and failings of potentially unfit elected officials, defined as candidates wholly incapable of effectively discharging the duties of office. On this point, I anticipate that the aforementioned logical extreme is, in theory, more likely in democratic systems with a preponderance of single-issue voters who, by definition, cast ballots according to specific policy objectives.

That said, should we expect theory to remain…theoretical?

What happens when single-issue (or religiously thematic) voters emerge in large, well-aligned blocks? For example, for certain blocs — such as those comprised of evangelical voters — positions on issues such as abortion and same sex marriage are non-negotiable; these are issues of personal salvation. Is a choice between religious salvation and a stronger safety net really a choice in the minds of these voters? If not, then to what ends will the voters go to achieve their “fundamental” policy objectives? What risks — to American institutions and American democracy — will these voters accept to achieve their fundamental objectives? Asked differently, are fundamentalist views — as understood — compatible with liberalism itself?

Perhaps hypocrisy is the least of our worries.

TL; DR — Trump is not a historical aberration when one considers the broader history of the American Right.

This historical perspective suggests that the conflation of the American Right with conservatism — defined by economic liberalism, cultural conservatism, and the ethos of Ronald Reagan — is inappropriate. Conservatism, as only a sliver of the American Right ideology, is far too narrowly defined to represent half of the political spectrum. In reality, the American Right encompasses a broader cast of characters and ideas, many of which sit in diametric opposition to those that mainstream conservatives have embraced for decades. This perspective helped me form a preliminary hypothesis around the voting behaviors of mainstream Republican voters, particularly during the 2016 election.

Historically, mainstream Republican voters — like many voters across the political spectrum — used party label as a heuristic to more easily navigate different portfolios of political positions and values. For example, Republicans stand for free trade and lower taxes and Democrats stand for labor and a well-funded social safety net. For the past few decades, this heuristic worked, particularly for conservatives; the Republican Party nominated George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney — all candidates who fit the traditional conservative mold. Yet, in the case of Donald Trump, who deviated from the conservative tradition, this party heuristic broke down; instead, the party label signaled political positions and values fundamentally at odds with the professed positions of the candidate himself.

What were the implications?

If we (generously) assume that most voters rely on party heuristics, then it is easier to understand how so many conservative voters could cast ballots for a candidate who challenged conservative orthodoxy. Only the most discerning conservatives, working from first position, would be able to identify the contradiction; only the most discerning conservatives would have experienced and subsequently navigated the cognitive dissonance associated with seeing their party led by a man who did not stand for conservative principles. And for everyone else? The party endorsement served as sufficient diligence.

Moreover, if we accept this hypothesis, then we can say that the Trump candidacy served as a pseudo-Rorschach test for voters. Trump benefited from voters’ conflation of the American Right, the Republican Party, and conservatism. Trump benefited from challenging party orthodoxy and from popular understanding of party orthodoxy. Trump benefited from having no fixed ideology or position and from the Republican Party’s codified platform. In effect, Donald Trump was all things to all (undiscerning) people, at least on the American Right.

Not a bad political strategy if you can pull it off.

Media & Technology

TL; DR — The making of a modern live event event.

Live events — particularly major branded events such as Coachella — have evolved from purely musical festivals to general cultural festivals. Social media has catalyzed this evolution by transitioning consumption from the Coachella polo fields to the digital networks, which create a consumption multiplier that amplifies these events’ cultural impact. For example, attendees consume the live music and overall experience in person, whereas non-attendees consume the consumption (read: experiences) of attendees through photos, videos, and music pushed through Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

One can look at these events — these brands — as core intellectual property whose content (i.e., musical performances and related media) is primarily created and distributed by in-person attendees. This person-to-person promotional dynamic facilitates a positive feedback loop that both elevates the Coachella brand and drives ever more people to bid for tickets to future events. So, in effect, attendees pay Coachella for the privilege of marketing Coachella to their digital networks.

Not a bad business model.